Should drunk-driving officer be treated differently?

Nine people were on Monday's court list for drinking and driving offences, but only one person interested the media.

The four reporters in Courtroom 2D's public gallery (including me) were there to see Thomas William Grainger, 29, make his first appearance before a judge.

What distinguished Grainger from all the others, you're wondering? Well, he's an RCMP officer, and has been so for nine years.

Grainger was charged with impaired driving and driving with a blood-alcohol level over .08 after he crashed his Toyota Matrix on a residential street just after midnight on April 3.

Breathalyser tests later established Grainger's blood alcohol levels were .180 and .190 - well above the legal limit to drive.

In court Monday, regional Crown counsel Lorne Fisher asked the judge to impose no more than the minimum sentence, a $1,000 fine and a one-year driving prohibition.

Judge Chris Cleaveley fined Grainger $1,500 instead, calling the higher blood-alcohol readings and the crash aggravating factors that deserved a bigger fine.

But in the end, Grainger was treated no differently than any other person would have been in the same circumstances. And that raises a question - should Grainger have been treated differently because of his career? Should RCMP officers who break the law face different or harsher penalties than everyone else?

Some people might say yes and demand that police officers be held to a higher standard. They are the ones who wield the power and uphold the law, after all. Likewise for lawyers and judges. If the keepers of justice act against it, should they not be held more accountable?

I don't think so. I have no problem with the sentence handed to Grainger, and think he was treated the way he should have been - the way we all should be treated - according to the law.

Police officers are people too, and it's only reasonable to think they will suffer from human failings in more or less the same proportion as the rest of us.

While our society has made drinking and driving the great scourge of our times, the fact of the matter is a great many of us continue to do it.

There's reason for that. The fact is, drinking and driving is perhaps the single most common way average folk end up in court.

Drinking and driving is unacceptable criminal behaviour that flows from perfectly acceptable social behaviour. It is not against the law to drink, or even to get drunk. It's not even against the law to drink and drive - only to drink too much and drive. People are expected to make the decisions about when to stop drinking at the time they are consuming the stuff that confuddles their brains.

Throw in the whole issue of addiction and the disease of alcoholism, and it's no wonder many of us get it wrong. Impaired driving offences continue to be one of the most common seen by judges. That will likely change only when society changes its attitude about drinking.

In this case, the officer was off-duty, visiting with friends. He immediately took responsibility for his actions, has stopped drinking and sought counselling. He stepped up and did the things we expect from someone who realizes they made a mistake.

Lastly, we can't overlook that Grainger is being treated differently than most of us would be, although the differences in this instance will be felt outside of court.

Grainger will be investigated and disciplined by his employers. He might get to keep his job, but not necessarily. At the least, he will face some form of internal sanction and have his career record stained by his actions. His fellow officers might look at him differently.

And he is being held up for scrutiny in a very public way. Eight other people who stood in court Monday to face the same charges are not seeing their names in the newspaper, nor will they.

He's on Page A1 of your newspaper precisely because he is an RCMP officer. That reflects the fact we do hold officers in high-esteem and would like them to behave better than we do, no matter how unrealistic that might be.

Const. Grainger is suffering consequences most of us would not. He is being treated differently, by all of us.

Robert Koopmans covers the courts for The Daily News. He can be reached at 250-372-2331, or by e-mail at r_koopmans@mac.com.

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